472 Years of History Recorded with Precision - The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty

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The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, also called the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, are a collection of the daily records of 25 kings of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). The 133,968 page collection – which would take seven years to read at a pace of 50 pages a day – covers nearly every day during the 472 years between the enthronement of Joseon’s founding king, Taejo, in 1392 to the death of its 25th king, Cheoljong, in 1863. The annals of Joseon’s final kings, Gojong and Sunjong, are excluded from the official collection as they were manipulated by imperial Japan.

The practice of compiling daily records of the king began in China, and was started in Korea during the Goryeo period (918-1392). Compilation of annals was considered a check on a king’s behavior in Confucian society, since he knew that his every action would be recorded for future generations to see.

During the reign of a king, eight full-time royal historiographers worked in rotating pairs, recording in detail the contents of all the king’s meetings, activities, and events. Documents from government buraus, provincial offices, and envoys, information about weather and natural events, obituaries of key officials who had died, and more, would also be collected as reference material. Then, upon the death of a king, a temporary office would be created to oversee the compilation of the Annals for that king. There were various regulations regarding what and how to include in the text, and historiographers would add their own commentary about events and people.

After the Annals of a king were finalized, four copies were made. One copy was kept in the capital, Hanyang, while the other three copies were each sent to a different provincial archive. However, being located in cities made the archives vulnerable to looting and fire, so they were later relocated to remote mountain archives.

The Annals were written in classical Chinese, and were therefore difficult for even scholars to read. Therefore, beginning in the 1960s, the Annals were translated into Korean. In the 1990s, the texts were digitized and made available on CD-ROM. Today, the Annals are available online, with search features and footnotes on terminology and historical figures. This has led to a growth of historical movies and dramas based on the events described in the Annals. Projects to translate the Annals into English are also underway.

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  • Koehler, Robert. 2011. Joseon's Royal Heritage: 500 Years of Splendor. Seoul Selection. p. 86-95.